The San Francisco Bay Area is a major American metropolitan area and thus its arts ecosystem is vastly complex and multifaceted. Summing it up in a way that denies that reality is a fool’s errand, but I’ll rush in. Decades ago I happened to be talking to Peter Schjeldahl and referred to a former Bay Area painter who was highly influential as a teacher here. I couldn’t recall the name momentarily, then said, “Clyfford Still.” Peter looked at me as though I had lost my mind. To him, Still was a New Yorker, end of argument—no matter that Still himself never felt that way. Flash forward half a century, and we can discuss a Bay Area artist like Tauba Auerbach who went to school and emerged from here. For that matter our host herself, Connie Lewallen, made the case in a landmark exhibition for Bruce Nauman’s most important formative years having taken place in Northern California. At what point does the region’s ability to shape artistic vision become a non-factor in favor of where the artist lives at the time they become famous? There are also many great artists who have stayed here and not been recognized as widely as they might have been, from Mark Pauline to Paul Kos, ad infinitum. And of course, there are the artists who stayed here and did thrive, like the MacArthur fellows Ned Kahn and Vincent Fecteau. But what I want to talk about in this forum is the centrality of Bay Area digital artists to global leadership.
Beginning in the 1980s, an ecology began to build in which first generation artists working in digital forms were drawn to the Bay Area by the availability of surplus stores around Silicon Valley, expertise among tech staff at those firms for artists to consult with, residence programs like Interval (via Paul Allen), and the growing possibility of finding a peer community. These were largely made up of the E.E. Club, electrical engineers trained at MIT and elsewhere who were more interested in art than commerce. The earliest figure was Paul DeMarinis, now a professor in the art department at Stanford, who was fashioning computer sound-generating objects as early as the mid-‘70s. Soon he was joined by Jim Campbell, who came out of film, and Alan Rath who was the first artist to use ROM technology and is now into robotics. Ed Tannenbaum was also doing interesting tech collaborations with dancers. The next generation included the MacArthur-winning Camille Utterback (also now at Stanford) who makes interactive video installations, the app-as-art wizard Scott Snibbe, and the self-taught engineer turned sculptor Paolo Salvagione, who was the lead designer behind the 10,000-year clock of the Long Now Foundation of the Bay Area. Younger figures in the field include such names as Mary Franck, Gabriel Dunne, Micah Elizabeth Scott and Reza Ali, among many others.
For the past couple of years Autodesk’s Pier 9 workshop has had an artist residence program on the San Francisco waterfront that not only gives artists access to state-of-the-art 3D printing equipment, but also gives a generous honorarium and budget. Dolby has a roster of thirty-one artist commissions for their new building on Market Street. Thus, the hostility engendered in the community by Silicon Valley’s disastrous impact on housing, if not the very zeitgeist of the city, is at least in some small ways ameliorated by its support of a cohort of local artists that truly is San Francisco’s hidden treasure and inarguably its most unique aesthetic attribute today.